Thursday, August 30, 2007

I just don't know what to make of this

I use a few anti-Catholic websites as a kind of tide marker for the intellectual (such as it is) state of anti-Catholicism. I do that because I think that it's important as a Catholic to know what sorts of arguments are out there, even bad ones, because I am liable to come across people in the process of sharing my faith who have bought into arguments that at least sound good. There are plenty of good-sounding arguments that are false, and that's just a product of truth-seeking being hard work, particularly in a fallen world. Unfortunately, few people are even willing to engage in the effort, and most people are willing to settle for what sounds reasonable without ever bothering to check whether it is real.

What seems very odd to me is that anti-Catholics appear to have more or less given up even the pretense of trying to fight Catholicism on intellectual terms. The whole response lately appears to be majoring on minors, responding to some or another nitpicky argument made by some or another apologist and acting as if the real issue is whether that particular apologist is credible, not what the truth of the matter is. Steve Ray diagnosed the problem in James White perfectly:
"He has yet to even form a coherent sentence as to why he believes in the New Testament Canon. Central tenet of his being, and he has no reason for it."

That's more or less the situation. Anti-Catholicism has all its eggs in one basket: that the authority of Scripture licenses their rejection of Catholicism. One would think that would require a compelling abductive or deductive argument for Scriptural authority, lest the appeal to Scripture be rendered viciously circular. I don't even know how there could be any other way that a belief could be rational.

I had made some remarks to that effect in an earlier post, not directed at anyone in particular, but questioning the rationality of sola scriptura on natural theological grounds. Oddly enough, Steve Hays "responded." I use the scare quotes because it doesn't seem to be a response at all. It seems to be an admission that, based on natural theology (which is simply the notion that one can have certain knowledge of God through the science of metaphysics, being as being), Protestantism has no justification. And it seems to me that if a Protestant is going to admit that, then he is implicitly admitting that he will never be able to answer Catholicism rationally.

My earlier words are in blue; Hays's comments are in red:

“It's hardly a coincidence that Mormons view Jewish anthropomorphism as philosophically normative; that appears to be what sola scriptura entails.”

i) This is a category mistake, since sola Scriptura doesn’t entail any particular interpretation of Scripture. Sola Scriptura is a rule of faith, not a hermeneutical prediction.

JP> It's not a category mistake; Hays simply hasn't responded to my argument that something can't possible serve as a formal rule unless it adjudicates exactly those sorts of hermeneutical disputes. That was the whole argument regarding formal authority.

ii) Jews themselves don’t construe “Jewish anthropomorphism” as philosophically normative in the Mormon sense of taking these anthropomorphic passages literally. Simply put, Jewish theism is a world apart from Mormon theism.

JP> I don't disagree. But Protestants following them do take literally a large number of passages about God "electing," etc., that are philosophically absurd on a literal construction. Obviously, God doesn't literally choose among people.

iii) The Bible itself, in certain programmatic statements, distinguishes between a divine and human viewpoint (e.g. Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29). Therefore, since Scripture itself internalizes a distinction between literal and anthropomorphic depictions of the divine, one doesn’t need to ransack natural theology to draw this distinction—for Scripture already differentiates and prioritizes those alternating perspectives.

JP> The irony here is that the two passages are both anthropomorphic, treating God as if He were literally a human agent, speaking and promising. Obviously, these are figures of the impassibility of the divine nature; it would be silly to imagine God as a being that makes choices, elects, or takes action in time and is then bound to what He did "before." That doesn't mean that the figure is unhelpful, because it is analogous in some way, but we can't take it too literally as if God were a "personal God" relating to humans like they relate to one another. There's little difference in kind between taking statements analogizing God to a human in conduct than God to a human in body, which is why I say that these sorts of mistakes seem to be inherent in taking what people said too literally in terms of intent. I have no doubt that "pre-philosophical" OT authors might have literally meant what they intended here, but natural theology demands a hermeneutical principle that takes the literal sentiment for what it analogously symbolizes.

“I can't say that I see much merit in the more general suggestion of how Catholics should argue with Protestants. The primary refutation of sola scriptura is that it is absurd as a matter of natural theology and that its conclusions deny certain conclusions of natural theology.”

i) So he doesn’t even entertain the self-witness of Scripture as a relevant consideration.

JP> From a normative perspective, that appeal would be viciously circular. Scripture might be obviously false if its self-witness were contradictory, but self-witness can't say anything positive about truth.

ii) How does he identify natural theology? Strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as natural theology. What we have, rather, is a bewildering variety of natural theologies.

JP> Strictly speaking, the claim that there is no such thing as natural theology would entail the claim that nothing at all can be known about God from existence. That's so obviously false that I'll assume that Hays isn't speaking strictly, but instead means that there is a bewildering variety of conclusions of natural theology.

I note that the number of possible conclusions hasn't stopped Hays from drawing them; he claims "In philosophy, I’m an Augustinian exemplarist. I’m a Cartesian dualist. I’m an alethic realist, but scientific antirealist. I believe in innate ideas, sense knowledge (I'm an indirect realist), and the primacy of divine revelation in Scripture." Granted, several of those conclusions are obviously wrong and even self-contradictory (e.g., innate ideas are simply nonsense, representational indirect realism using innate ideas is incompatible with the hylomorphism required to justify alethic realism, Augustinian exemplarism, and any coherent account of Cartesian dualism). But that simply goes to show that there are a lot of wrong conclusions that don't vitiate the correctness of natural theology generally. For example, idealism has been bad metaphysics for as long as there have been philosophers, but the most brilliant minds in history keep falling for it; see, e.g., Parminides, Plato, Plotinus, Kant, Berkeley. Indeed, Hays himself seems to have adopted something like a Berkeleyan psychopolis account of Heaven despite its absurdities, so why not?

Outside of Christianity, there are different versions of natural theology in Greek philosophy, Indian philosophy, Islamic philosophy, process theology, and so on.

JP> There's a nice book by Jacques Maritain called An Introduction to Philosophy that charts all of the screw-ups of every major philosophy that isn't Aristotelian, including all of the ones mentioned here. Natural theology just means that there is an answer to find, not that people wont screw up in finding it.

There are heretical forms of natural theology, like Erigena’s synthesis.

JP> Yep. People make mistakes.

Within Catholicism, there are different versions of natural theology in Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus, and so on.

JP> True. And most everyone was wrong about something. The good thing about continuity is that you can actually progress and get more things right.

There are also varieties of Thomism, such as Neothomism, transcendental Thomism, existential Thomism, analytical Thomism, &c.

JP> True. Some are more right than others. See Ronald McCamy's collection of Maritain's arguments against transcendental Thomism, for example.

So, before Prejean can deploy natural theology as an interpretive grid through which to filter and validate the propositions of Scripture, he needs to isolate, identify, and defend the one true version of natural theology he is using. We look forward to his detailed argument.

JP> Spoken like a true idealist! It's all about the "interpretive grid." Reality dictating knowledge? Pshaw! That might require that even Scripture have to be consistent with external knowledge before it could be affirmed as true. But in the idealist world of divine revelation, this is entirely opposite. Scripture tells you what is real, no matter what you know, because what's real is what's in your head. If God puts something in your head, that is more "ultimate" than your experience. "Nonsense on stilts" is, I believe, the apt historical description of that.

“That is a good and sufficient reason for presuming that ANY form of divine revelation also includes the appointment of definite individuals with the power to resolve these matters.”

This is a purely a priori postulate. And one problem with this stipulation is that we find no precedent for his armchair postulate in the life of the old covenant community. God did not endow a definite set of individuals with the power to resolve doctrinal disputes. So why should we take Prejean’s dicta seriously?

JP> Indeed, I consider the old covenant community to be evidence that lack of a stable, formal authority is doomed to failure. Israel seems like an object lesson of the principle that I deductively derived (not a priori) from what struck me as reasonably descriptions of the operation of actual authorities (induced from actual knowledge). Every time that God gave them some sort of gift to help them stay on the straight and narrow, they spurned it. If that didn't show the need for the constant presence of God's authority, I don't know what would.

“My argument was essentially that, for anything to function as a binding authority, it must actually be able to bindingly resolve every dispute coming under the auspices of the formal system. That means, ultimately, that if any interpretation of any material authority can be disputed, there has to be some human authority that has the power to finally resolve it, even if that power isn't exercised. Otherwise, in the end, all you have is persuasive authority, and the hope that there is actually an answer to be had if reasonable people simply exercise their God-given reason.”

i) Once again, since no such authority existed in God’s constitution of the old covenant community, why should we intuit the necessity of such an institution in the life of the new covenant community?

JP> Because the old covenant community didn't work. It was dysfunctional, and the new covenant has been held out as something better.

ii) And it won’t do to invoke a dispensational disjunction along the lines of Isa 54:13, Jer 31:33, Ezk 36:27, for—at most—that would signal a decentralization of religious authority rather than a concentration of authority in a single individual or subset of elite individuals.

JP> Hays's magisterial pronouncement that "it won't do" could certainly benefit by an argument. As it is, he's jumped to the conclusion that the writing of the law on people's hearts has anything to do with formal authority. I certainly wouldn't be inclined to take the concept as literally. Moreover, formal authority pertains to the object of faith, so the distinction between the covenants is based on the new object, not a new disposition in the subject. The improved object of faith is the Son of God subsisting in His Body, the Church. I suppose that in that respect, I do think it involves "concentration of authority," in that it puts all faith in one person: Christ Himself, and individuals only insofar as they are His members. But I fail to see how the cited passages militate against that sort of centralization.

“The problem I see with sola scriptura in that regard is that there is no good cause for granting authority to Scripture in the first place, so there is never more than merely probable and rebuttable warrant for any particular conclusion drawn.”

Well, I suppose we should at least commend Jonathan for his candid infidelity. For him, the Word of God has no intrinsic authority. For him, the Word of God has no inherent credibility. Whatever authority we credit to Scripture is a purely secondary and derivative authority which is conferred on Scripture by some extrinsic locus of authority.

JP> Pay very close attention here, because this is a direct admission that Hays's belief is fideistic and irrational, but it's easy to miss. Hays says that my denial of the Word of God having "intrinsic authority" and "inherent credibility" is infidelity. It follows then that fidelity requires admitting these things. But "intrinsic authority" and "inherent credibility" are meaningless, nonsense in the most basic meaning of the term. So Hays is saying that faith REQUIRES you to accept something that not only has not been proved but cannot possibly be proved, because it entails something that cannot be rationally believed. That's fideism in a nutshell

How is Prejean’s view of Scripture any different than 18C Deism, a la Collins, Toland, Tindal, et al.?

JP> News flash: I'm Catholic. I believe that Christ is still around and active. They don't.

“And unlike the case of science, there's no good cause for thinking that exegesis of Scripture produces knowledge in the first place, because unlike science, its normative standards aren't justified by first principles.”

So when the OT prophets interpret the Pentateuch, this exercise doesn’t yield knowledge. And when Jesus or the Apostles interpret the OT, this exercise doesn’t yield knowledge.

JP> For THEM it did, because they have a reason to accept Scriptural authority. You have no reason, so for you, it produces nothing.

Likewise, when the church fathers or Aquinas exegete Scripture, this exercise doesn’t yield knowledge.

JP> For HIM it did, because he had a reason to accept Scriptural authority. For you, it doesn't.

“I don't see any reason to think that Scripture can function even as a persuasive authority.”

Once again, I deeply appreciate Prejean’s frank admission that Catholicism and infidelity are synonymous.

JP> Once again, I appreciate Hays's frank admission of irrational fideism.

“One can do what conservative Evangelicals do, which is a bare, unjustified assertion of properties like inerrancy, wholeness, etc., of Scripture, which is effectively to conjure a normative authority out of nowhere.”

Yes, to agree with God’s self-estimate regarding the divine authority of his word is “effectively to conjure a normative authority out of nowhere.”

JP> If by "God's self-estimate" you mean your normative interpretation of Scripture, then yes, that's exactly what I mean. Viciously circular normative arguments by definition conjure a normative authority out of nowhere.

“Every allegedly divinely revealed conclusion is only as good as its weakest normative link, and there is not even a coherent way of defining what the normative principles are. Unless God has invested some definite class of people with formal divine authority (and there might be legitimate disputes of judgment as to who those people are, but one has to at least think that there are such people), the situation for arriving at theological truth outside of natural theology is hopeless.”

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that “God has invested some definite class of people with formal divine authority,” are there no weak links in the chain of transmission? Isn’t the dissemination of Catholic dogma a trickle down process?

JP> Hays is confusing objective authority with subjective knowledge. If there's no proper object of authority (in terms of a formal system), then you don't even get to the question of whether people can find it, because there's nothing to find. Hays analogized Orthodoxy to a leaky house and says that he prefers his own. My rejoinder is that Hays doesn't even have a house, only an irrational belief that he isn't being soaked by the rain, accusing those who point out that he is wet of infidelity.

Even if the chain of transmission is hooked into the extraordinary Magisterium at one end, as soon as the chain of transmission drops below the extraordinary Magisterium, then we’re back to a series of weak links. So, by Prejean’s own yardstick, the case for Catholic dogma is hopeless.

JP> Quite the contrary, because I believe in both natural theology and the presence of Christ in the Church, I believe that there is something out there to know. If there are screw ups in transmission, then there is some real thing to which we can turn to discern whether we've screwed up. And I would mark out one key difference between my view and Hays's view: without that external grounding in reality, competition is chaos. The reason that discussion and theory can produce answers is that reality is a forcing function on the method, and in Hays's idealism, there's no necessary correlation between knowledge and reality, because the most fundamental tenet of the whole system (Scriptural authority) comes out of nowhere. Knowledge can't depend on something internal to you, like some disposition toward Scripture, some "interpretive grid," and still be knowledge about reality.


At 7:34 AM, Blogger Joseph said...

Once again Jonathan, I still can't see how arguing from a Sola Scriptura posture is not begging the question against the Catholic Church. Until someone sees the logical errors which you pointed out in this post regarding fideistic acceptance of scriptural authority, the dialogue goes nowhere.

Sola Scriptura is a made up doctrine that functions as an epistemological fallback that enables the individual to have direct personal knowledge that bypasses the community of the faithful (the very grounds of that knowledge). Protestant epistemology is nothing but a precursor to German Rationalism, pure and simple. As Perry has pointed out before, Protestantism is Christianity made safe for the Enlightenment. I hope my response doesn't warrant its own Triablogue post, because I do not have the free time to discuss why people should not believe nonsense.

At 12:48 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

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At 12:19 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

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